Yes, you’re seeing that right: Marsai Martin in a pink power suit, Berkin bag on her arm, walking the halls of school like a boss. Oh, and did we mention the glorious Afro she’s sporting?
It’s the 14-year-old’s own imagination come to life on the big screen in Little, a new film where she co-stars alongside Regina Hall, who plays Jordan Sanders, a b-tchy tech mogul that’s “just mean,” Martin tells ESSENCE exclusively.
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“She’s a butthole, but no one really says anything because she’s the boss. She might cut you,” the Blackish star continues about Hall’s onscreen persona.
But when the boss, who’s got nothing on Miranda Priestly, comes across someone who won’t take her meanspiritedness and wishes that she “was little” so she could be checked, Hall’s Sanders is turned into a miniature version of herself, played by Martin.
The young actress said she was inspired to create Little after watching the 1988 comedy Big that centers on Tom Hanks’ Josh Baskin who wishes to be “big” and gets turned into an adult overnight. But in Little, Sanders’ under-appreciated assistant April, played by Issa Rae, now has to be her guardian — and watching the two onscreen together is glorious.
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Little, produced by Will Packer and directed by Tina Gordon, was shot last year in Atlanta. A quick look at Martin’s Instagram Stories while she was filming not only showed the Black Girl Magic in front of the camera, but behind the scenes as well. Martin says having representation on both sides of the lens was “very meaningful” to her.
“I was very comfortable [on set] because they were my people,” she continued. “Working on a bunch of sets, you kind of don’t see that often. The more comfortable you are, the more confident you are — in how you say your lines or how you perform in a certain scene because you’re working with great people, who will watch over you and won’t let you down.”
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It also gave her the creative confidence to rock an iconic natural hairstyle onscreen — something she had never done before although the Afro is her preferred style when she’s not at work. She said the retro style makes her feel “free.”
“I’ve never worn an Afro…in any performance or for a character,” Martin, who’s played Diane Johnson on ABC’s Blackish, a sitcom centered on a Black family, for more than 100 episodes, said. “And when I was able to create such a strong character where she can do whatever she wants, I wanted her to wear her natural hair and be confident. No one can take her down — all of that would be in her hair.”
Martin hopes that her feature film debut inspires other teens to dream bigger.
“A lot of people will say different stuff like, ‘You can’t do it.’ They’ll say no before I even say anything,” the actress reflects. “You just have to believe in yourself and there’s a reason they might say no because they probably haven’t seen it before.”
“You don’t really see a 14-year-old girl creating her own stuff and actually making it into theaters,” she adds. “That’s why you have to start working with people that will trust you and will believe that you can do it and will trust that you can carry…such a big responsibility.”
Martin says one of those people is a writer and producer she’s been watching for the past five years: Blackish’s Barris. It was advice Barris gave Martin that turned a lightbulb in her head.
“Kenya said I have the freedom to do whatever I want. At that time I was nervous to say what I meant or say what was on my mind. Everything was kept in, but when he said that it was very relieving — and that’s when I took the journey to make this a thing.”
Little hits theaters April 12, but the very first trailer drops Wednesday.